Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."
In the 1992 presidential election, Americans chose Bill Clinton, a newcomer to national politics, over George H.W. Bush, a man who had held just about every important job Washington had to offer, including president, and then re-elected Clinton in 1996 instead of choosing Bob Dole, who had been in the Senate since 1969.
In 2000, another Washington drop-in, George W. Bush, was elected instead of Beltway lifer Al Gore, and then he gained a second term when he defeated John Kerry, who had been in the Senate for two decades. In 2008 and 2012, the pattern continued, when another barely tested neophyte, Barack Obama, bested first John McCain and then Mitt Romney. In 2016, the consummate interloper, Donald Trump, defeated Hillary Clinton, whose range of national experience almost matched the elder Bush’s.
Although in 2020 the trend seemed to reverse, Trump’s term in office was, to say the least, unique, and in 2024 smart money is tilting toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who previously spent just three terms in the U.S. House. While turnover in politics is hardly an unusual phenomenon, Americans’ recent string of political U-turns is uncommon in electoral democracies, matched only by France, owner of the world’s most fickle electorate. The question for both nations is not so much why new faces have such appeal as why the old faces lose their allure so thoroughly.
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The answer seems to be that every one of the upstarts, be it Clinton, Obama, Bush, Emmanuel Macron or Nicolas Sarkozy, gained office by promising change, often radical change, in the face of political stultification. When sufficient change did not come, instead of asking themselves why, the electorate simply blamed the person they elected and switched to the next new face making the same sort of promises. And so, each of these so-called outsiders understood how powerful a weapon blame is and campaigned successfully on the “failed administration” of the man they sought to succeed.
Aware that, in the absence of sufficient gratification, voters can easily be persuaded to abandon the person or party to whom they had recently given their support, it is in the interest of the party that had been voted out to be maximally uncooperative, thus inhibiting change and rendering the odds for their return to power that much more favorable. As a result, no ruling party or group, unless it has overwhelming support, can count on a fair test for its legislative priorities. (Cheating, however, has been an effective means to circumvent this problem, which is how Republicans packed the courts, but cheating is less successful with laws that generally need some support by the opposition party.)
While it is tempting to denounce politicians for exploiting voters' need for short-term solutions to long-term problems, the real focus should be on voters who allow themselves to be pandered to without ever learning to be more demanding of those for whom they vote.
At the moment, President Biden is under assault for allowing food and energy prices to skyrocket and for any number of other unnamed sins, including the totally false claim that he is cognitively impaired. The last of these is ironic because his accusers are the same people who chose to overlook his predecessor’s quite questionable grip on reality.
Just two months ago, Americans had been passionate about employing all of America’s military and financial might to deter Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable invasion and genocide in Ukraine, but now their focus has almost entirely shifted to inflation in general and gasoline prices in particular. Republicans have seized on inflation as the linchpin of their campaign to persuade Americans to refuse to entrust their welfare to a president who, they say, sits by idly, dithering, and lets it happen.
But a major contributor to inflation is that very Ukraine war that has been squeezed off the front page. Gasoline prices have reacted to the disruption of energy supply due to the boycott of Russian oil and gas, and Russia’s Black Sea blockade has helped drive up the price of grain.
The short-term solution, and one which Republicans may well suggest, is to withdraw, or at least limit support for Ukraine, thus easing the pressure on both energy and food. Why should we be making sacrifices for a corrupt government half a world away, they might ask, when “America First” should be our credo? Why should hard-working, church-going, freedom-loving Americans suffer because Putin is a power-hungry murderer? Why not just let him have part of Ukraine and end this nonsense? Biden is in the process of ruining your lives by putting foreigners before Americans.
If that sounds suspiciously like the way Hitler was treated by western Europe in the 1930s, it is because both Putin’s ambitions and his strategy of disruption are no different. He recently invoked Peter the Great to justify his aspirations to reconstitute the “Russian Empire,” just as Hitler invoked Frederick the Great to the same end. He, like his Nazi bedfellow, has demonstrated there are no limits — not murder, not torture, not wanton destruction —to his determination to achieve his goal.
Americans need to ask themselves, then, what are the consequences of appeasing Putin for the sake of cheaper gasoline and lower food prices? Even if Putin does not start a world war, once the United States backs down, shows weakness in the face of energy and food blackmail, he will have found a strategy he can use again and again. Food and energy prices will therefore be at his mercy, leaving Americans in precisely the same fix as they find themselves today.
Putin is counting on Americans' need for short-term gratification to allow that very scenario to become reality.
If, however, Americans defy his expectations and show strength in the face of threat, match aggression with determination, and demonstrate to Putin, and anyone else who would attempt to destroy world order for personal goals, that the United States intends to remain a world leader, this country will have a good bit more control of its long-term destiny.
Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Not exactly an ethos to which most Americans ascribe to these days. That is unfortunate because real change often takes time and demands patience and sacrifice.
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